Pakistan safe enough to deploy poll observers: EU


Islamabad/Brussels : Security has improved enough in Pakistan to begin deploying long-term observers for the polls, the chief European Union election observer said Friday.

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Officials in Brussels confirmed the decision, saying that the current observer team in Pakistan would immediately be expanded to a full long-term mission that is to deploy across as much of the country as local security conditions permit.

The long-term mission would be further strengthened on the day of the election itself, as long as it is safe to do so, a spokeswoman for the EU’s executive, the European Commission, said.

Nationwide unrest following Bhutto’s slaying Dec 27 in a gun-suicide bomb attack prevented final preparations for the elections, scheduled for next Tuesday, from being completed.

Dozens of people were killed in the violence, leading the Pakistani government to postpone the elections to Feb 18. The violence also prevented the deployment of hundreds of observers from the EU and other foreign monitoring groups.

The EU has now given the go-ahead for a full mission, which should consist of 11 experts in the capital, Islamabad, some 50 long-term observers monitoring the campaigning process, and around the same number of short-term observers monitoring the election itself, the Commission spokeswoman said.

But those numbers would only be deployed if security conditions on the ground allow, she stressed.

The chief EU observer, Michael Gahler of Germany, told a press conference in Islamabad that 48 long-term observers would be deployed to Pakistan’s four provinces in the coming days.

He said the security situation remained somewhat volatile and that he could not exclude violence in the build-up to the rescheduled election, “but at the moment it is my impression the level of violence has calmed down.”

Gahler said there were no government restrictions on where EU observers could deploy, although it had previously been decided that they could not go into Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt or the Swat valley in northwest, where the army is battling pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.

Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the country’s other main opposition party, denounced the delay but grudgingly accepted it.

The parliamentary elections are meant to usher in the return of civilian government in Pakistan following more than eight years of military rule under embattled President Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan’s Western backers, particularly the Bush administration, hope a popularly elected civilian government will strengthen Musharraf’s crumbling political position and allow the country to refocus on fighting Islamic militants that are attacking both Pakistani forces and US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan.

While welcoming recent statements by Musharraf that the elections would be free and fair, Gahler said the Election Commission could take more steps to ensure the polls met international standards.